Seven Ways to Revamp Deserted Spaces Under New York City’s Highways and Elevated Trains

The Design Trust for Public Space reimagines neglected areas under the city’s infrastructure

(Rendering: Susannah C. Drake. Courtesy of the Design Trust for Public Space)

Under the train trestles and highway bridges of New York City, there are 700 miles of underused public land. It seems like a waste, in a city where square footage is a hot commodity. So, in partnership with the city's Department of Transportation, the Design Trust for Public Space released a report this June reimagining these spaces.

The groups came up with seven specific locations on public land—the Gowanus Expressway, Division Street in Chinatown, Southern Boulevard in the Bronx, Broadway Junction in Brooklyn, the Queensboro Bridge, Highbridge Park and Kew Gardens. Each of the sites had a different kind of public infrastructure that they wanted to upgrade: landing (where a bridge reconnects with the streets on the other side), park, trestle, highway, clover (the looping on-ramps of highways), clusters of train tracks and span bridges. The plans address future needs, neighborhood revitalization, sustainability and mobility.

Some of the projects, like the redesign of Broadway Junction in Brooklyn, are already underway, while others are still in the planning phase. “The goal was to create new systems that can be replicated across the country,” says architect and Design Trust urban design fellow Susannah Drake.

Gowanus Expressway, Brooklyn

A bioswale is a piece of landscaping that's used to filter silt and pollution out of stormwater and other runoff. One of Drake’s big projects is to build modular bioswales to manage runoff and to create green spaces in park-poor areas. The Design Trust focused on a stretch under the Gowanus Expressway in Brooklyn. This particular location faces dirty runoff that pours off the highways at high speed and a lack of light, but Drake's bioswales, using a variety of wetland plants to soak up contaminants, could mitigate pollution, make flood-prone areas like this one more resilient, and transform the neglected space into something more appealing to pedestrians. “I want to see them in every city,” she says. “I want it to be the new ecological Jersey barrier.”

About Heather Hansman
Heather Hansman

Heather Hansman is a Seattle-based freelancer who writes about science, the environment, tech and people, and how they all interact. Her work has appeared in Outside, Popular Science and Grist.

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